When first shown on TV, Britain closed down. For a certain section of society, The Camomile Lawn became compulsory viewing and a compulsory subject of conversation around the kettle the next day. Or - perhaps more correctly - down the village bowls club, for the wartime setting and middle-aged themes of Mary Wesley's novel bestow upon it a distinctly National Trust kind of audience.
Not that this should put you off. Once past the peculiar upper-class accents of the characters - now exclusively the preserve of royalty and the elderly insane - The Camomile Lawn is a joy to watch. It's gossipy, fast-paced and earthy; people in this wartime lived and loved and fucked in full and glorious technicolour.
When the film opens, it is just before the announcement of war. People are making preparations, and there is an awareness at the Cuthbertson family gathering in Cornwall that this summer will be the last. The family are an oddly-mixed assortment of cousins, aunts and a stray 10-year-old niece, apparently unwanted by anyone else. Most of the cousins are in their late teens and early twenties, spending their time sunbathing and idly debating whether it would be better to sleep with each other, or to enlist.
Once war breaks out, things stay peculiarly the same. If this is war, then it is a very homely affair. Either because it is an adaptation, or because its director, Peter Hall, is better known for theatre work, the film has an oddly closed quality. There are no vast and bloody battles here, nor much in the way of street, or crowd scenery. The characters play out their lives and their dramas at home, in London or in Cornwall. News of defeats, victories and death arrive through the wireless, or by telegram. It is this brusquely domestic view which makes the programme so notable.
Felicity Kendal gives a lovely performance as the scatty, snobbish, but endearing Aunt Helena and Jennifer Ehle steals the show as the magnificently vampish Calypso - a kind of grand wartime Samantha, who goes on swearing that she only ever married her husband for his money well after everyone else has realised she secretly married him for love. All the central characters - except, perhaps, the 10-year-old Sophie - tackle what could well have become bland one-dimensional characters with subtlety and grace. Sophie, given too big a role too young, unfortunately ends up being merely irritating.
Aided by a wonderful score and Hall's direction - he does not insist on period perfection, as many adaptations do, but leaves clothes, hairstyles and emotions realistically unkempt at the edges - The Camomile Lawn does both its source and its subject justice.